Monday, August 21, 2017

Review: Swallowing Mercury

Swallowing Mercury Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book of short stories that seem more like vignettes of a rural Polish childhood during the Communist years. The political details are in the background but place Wioletta well. There are some attempts to weave in fables and myths but they were subtle enough that they did not get in the way of a good story. The cultural details were incredibly vivid, from paprikash spread to the flowers falling from the fabric.

I first knew about this collection when it was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. While it didn't make the shortlist, I was happy to find a copy during Women in Translation Month (August 2017.)

I also enjoyed Kamil's review on YouTube because he read the stories both in the original Polish and then in English, and I learned a lot from his comments.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy through Edelweiss.

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Review: Reservoir 13

Reservoir 13 Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am SO TORN about this book. I've been thinking about it for days. I think part of my issue is that how it is being sold to the reader - the disappearance of a girl, the fallout - is not really what the book is. It is true that there is a disappearance but it's a much slower book - about the town, the nature in the town, the seasons, all the little people and all their little lives, the cycles they go through, the long reaching effects of all of the tragedies, the girl included - the way secrets last and others don't, who never leaves and who never stays, who is trusted and who can't be.... all these tiny things beautifully written and forming the quilt of this place.

Except I think I'm supposed to find out what happens to this girl, so as a reader I kept changing how I read. If I read in a slow way with appreciation of the details, it is lovely and effective. If I look for answers I am left wanting. What am I supposed to want and how am I supposed to feel? Sometimes it was excruciating to circle back around, while I found myself appreciating the journey at the same time.

I suspect the book will jump from Man Book long list to shortlist because the judges will like this juxtaposition. For me I'm still not convinced both work in the same book, but I still can't sort it all out. This is decidedly not the read for someone looking for a thrill.

Thanks to the publisher for providing me with early access through Edelweiss.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Reading Envy 093: Spewing Science

Jeff Koeppen returns and brings two science books! Have we ever had science books on Reading Envy before? Perhaps not, and it was time. We also talk about other things. But also science.

Download or listen via this link: Reading Envy 093: Spewing Science.

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Books featured:

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Midnight Riot (Peter Grant #1) by Ben Aaronovitch
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work (A StoryCorps Book) by Dave Isay
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan
In the Time of the Blue Ball by Manuela Draeger

Other mentions:

Death from the Skies!: These Are the Ways the World Will End by Philip Plait
Carrington Event (Wikipedia entry)
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher
Excerpt of Rivers of London aka Midnight Riot audiobook
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling
The Stand by Stephen King
The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison
StoryCorps app
The View from a Drawbridge (blog) 
Face on Mars (NASA article)
Richard Hoagland - The Other Side of Midnight website
A Candle in the Dark by Thomas Ady
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

Related Episodes:

Episode 042 - It Begins with Rain with Jason Roland
Episode 071 - Bad Priest, Good Priest, No Priest with Scott
Episode 090 - Reading Envy Readalong: East of Eden with Ellie and Jeff

Stalk us online:

Jenny at Goodreads
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Jenny is @readingenvy on Instagram and Litsy

Jeff at Goodreads
Jeff on Twitter
Jeff is @jeffkoeppen on Litsy

Friday, August 11, 2017

Review: Home Fire

Home Fire Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I went looking for a review copy of this when it was included on the Man Booker Prize Long list, and was approved for one by the publisher through Edelweiss.

This is a book that kept morphing as I read it and discussed it, and it ended up in a place far removed from my expectations at the beginning. Nowhere in the publisher summary or promotional material does it mention that the author is also basing this novel on the myth of Antigone, but she has, and that proves important in understanding some of her choices.

The author is from Pakistan, and the characters have some loose ties to Pakistan and end up there during some of the events, but it is more important inside the novel that the three central characters (siblings) are all children of a jihadi who was killed during or because of his military action. The characters themselves aren't certain, just know that he's gone, so I won't give that detail away. It's important to also understand that as a jihadi, he is working toward the magical homeland idea, and to that end has voluntarily fought in Afghanistan, Syria, Chechnya, and beyond. And the people he was involved with have done the same. Between that fact and the fact that the siblings are split between the USA and the UK, and the placeness of the novel feels very unstable.

More instability in the novel comes from the shifting viewpoints and genres. The novel starts with Isma, the oldest sister as she moves to Amherst for school, including a long drawn out inquisition at the airport that makes her miss her flight. She meets Eamonn, son of a powerful politician in the UK, but his family is also close to her family in country and religion of origin, even if they don't seem to claim it anymore. At this point the novel feels like it is headed one specific direction, but there is a major shift to a romance novel for a while, and then it turns into a jihadist recruitment novel, and then a story about the placelessness of people labeled terrorists. Too much time, perhaps, is spent on what to do with a dead body without a country (this is a place where the author is trying to hard, in my opinion, to shoehorn the novel into the myth, when it is not needed, she has enough of a story without that.)

As you can tell from my attempt to summarize, there is a lot going on in this novel. But I also found myself thinking far more deeply about the context. How far reaching are the wounds of Partition, which is where this family first lost their footing? How has that impacted the longterm inclination towards jihad? How do the way their family is treated in the USA and the UK effect how one member can only find home and family with a group of soldiers who knew his father? And outside this story, how is our current political situation worsening these kinds of narratives, pushing people into outsider status and otherness, without home, without firm footing? I think that's the thread that is between the lines, and to me, the most powerful part. I was waffling between three and four stars but I think my own thinking as a result of the novel pushes it to four.

I do think there are misses here, though. The mythological connection weakens the story, especially the ending. Without saying what the ending is, I think it's a cop out to have a single climactic moment rather than following characters as they deal with the real-world, complex complications of the decisions that people have made. That's a movie move, not a novel move. There are missed opportunities between characters, conversations and interactions I expected them to have but are instead skipped, glossed over, or deemed not important. Isma and Aneeka should have had a huge fight about one plot element, and I felt like the connection between Isma and Eamonn's father had a lot of potential and it just dissipates.

I would like to read more by this author, although I personally don't feel this is strong enough to make the Booker shortlist. Too many dropped plot points, a lack of realism at crucial moments, and the unevenness in genre and story arcs. I did appreciate the deep thinking it inspired, and it ended up having enough in it to count as one of the reads for my Borders 2017 challenge.

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Review: The Madeleine Project

The Madeleine Project The Madeleine Project by Clara Beaudoux
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This unique title comes from New Vessel Press, one of the publishers doing good work in translated fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. I received a copy of this through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. (And thanks to the publisher for helping with a technical issue!)

The Madeleine Project is something that started in Twitter, when Clara started documenting the unpacking and unboxing of a storage cellar below her new apartment. The life of the woman named Madeleine, who had lived in the apartment before her, is revealed piece by piece and detail by detail.

The majority of the book is a translated capture of what happened in Twitter, as it happened. The center of the book has some longer narrative about the background and context of the Paris attacks and the unintended impact they had on the project.

I'm a person who reads ephemera, so I noticed at the end of the book where Clara thanks all of these Twitter followers who provided more information, tried out Madeleine's recipes, or even knew the person whose life she was revealing. She also mentions that she originally planned to include their contributions in the book, but it ended up being too overwhelming. I couldn't help but wish we had gotten to see at least a little of that. I would have loved the recipe interactions, or to learn more about the details that Clara didn't know, identifying tiny objects and their uses. I felt like I was only seeing one side of a very rich conversation at times.

I immediately sent this book to my colleague who runs our university's Special Collections and Archives, wondering if anyone in the archival world had ever documented a new donation this way. I would love it. I'm the kind of person to follow Twitter John Adams' journal and other such accounts. It's interesting if you follow every day, but if you want to keep and collect that form, it needs to be pulled into something else as this book attempts to do. I think the one thing missing are the other voices and eyes that clearly made the project as rich as it was for the original author.

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Sunday, August 6, 2017

Review: Silencer

Silencer Silencer by Marcus Wicker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What is it like to be a black man in midwestern America? Marcus Wicker answers that question in these poems, from microaggressions at a party to interactions with a colleague. He is in deliberate conversation with many writers, but specifically the works Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. Both of these works are specifically mentioned on the notes page to this volume of poems, where you will also find the context for each poem and a playlist.

I fully expect this to be on the National Book Award list this upcoming year. It is relevant and manages to be both universal and an individual experience. The poems are dense and sometimes abstract, and demand your focus.

You can preview a few on the digital EP but the entire volume comes out September 12.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy through Edelweiss!

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Review: The Hamilton Affair

The Hamilton Affair The Hamilton Affair by Elizabeth Cobbs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is for fans of Hamilton-the-Musical or a solid historical narrative focusing on female characters or historical romance. It's all of those things. The author worked on this when Hamilton was still a lesser known founding father instead of an award winning musical. There is some remarkable overlap in specific lines, but this is because they both used the same primary sources! You'll find some of the same content in Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, and, I imagine, Alexander Hamilton. Good research will find the same information. Just to get that out of the way, as some reviews have said something like, "She ripped off Hamilton!"

It reminds me of the book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, where Elizabeth Gilbert explains where ideas come from and how sometimes they occur simultaneously. An amazing phenomenon, displayed here.

Of course the focus is different here. There is more time spent on the childhoods of Alexander and Eliza, and the author spent time in the West Indies while she researched. And while politics are still in the story, the focus is more on the relationships. I feel like I also learned more about the Schuyler family and Eliza's time as a daughter, sister, wife, and widow.

The narrator, Coleen Marlo, grew on me. At first she'd end sentences with a whisper and while I don't believe she is the same narrator who I complained about before who did the same thing, it is a personal dislike of mine. Either she stopped doing it or I got used to her because after I got into the story itself, it stopped sticking out to me.

I received an audio review copy of this book from Brilliance Audio, in exchange for an honest review.

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